As soon as we were up and ready, we wrapped up warm and headed out to see the sights. We again walked along 42nd Street – as we found that to be a handy route – but instead of turning off down Broadway we kept straight ahead. The Chrysler building was on the horizon as we strolled. It is my favourite New York skyscraper. I love the glistering fish scaled peak of terraced arches and the sleek perfection of the Art Deco architecture. I really ought to pop into the lobby some day in order to see the interior.
We popped into Bryant Park because Mr Pict had just been reading about how it was once the city’s reservoir but had then been filled in. Posters declared that it was set up to be some sort of Winter Wonderland. I am sure it had been perfectly lovely and festive during the holidays but what this currently meant was that wrought iron tables and chairs were set among smoggy grey piles of snow. An area had been turned into an ice skating rink which is apparently something Bryant Park is famed for. The boys enjoyed seeing people skating around, from the people wobbling and failing like newborn deer to the people gliding around performing moves in lycra leggings as if they were at Sochi going for Olympic gold. From there, just around the corner, we saw the front of the New York Public Library. This was a building known to the kids from the disaster movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, as it is where several characters huddle up to seek refuge from the extremely perishing temperatures outside. I am not sure that memory did much to convince them that they were not cold and should be happy to walk the streets of Manhattan all day.
Our destination for the morning was the Empire State Building. Outside there were people trying to convince us to upgrade to a skyline ticket but we managed to nip past them and into building. I had been once before, during my last time in New York, but that was a few weeks prior to 9/11, before the War on Terror and Homeland Security. It was a very different process to get into the building than it had been before. We queued to get through security and undergo a screening process that was exactly like that conducted at an airport: coats, bags and hats off, belts off, phone and bags in the box and all scanned while each of us walked through a metal detector. It was a bit of a time-consuming fankle though, of course, I absolutely appreciate the necessity. Then there was the queue for the tickets. Then there was a queue for the lift to take us to the 80th floor. From the 80th floor we could either queue again to get in the lift or we could climb six flights of stairs to the Observation Deck. We chose the latter option, as did quite a few people. The boys were wee troopers and slogged up the stairs without complaint.
The air on the Observation Deck was lung-crushingly cold. It took a while for my breathing to return to normal as I found myself gasping and coughing as my throat and lungs adjusted to the temperature. Bracing. The last time I had visited the Empire State Building was at night which was helpful for my vertigo but meant that the views were rather abstract, with everything reduced to blocks of light and dark and patterns of coloured lights. The advantage of the day’s chill air was that it was also crisp and bright and visibility was great. We could see across the river, the Statue of Liberty at the mouth of the Hudson, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park and the Flatiron Building. Our 10 year old was especially interested in the architecture and the different buildings he could see and our 4 year old was excited to see the Statue of Liberty as he has become obsessed with it. The frigid temperature meant that we did walk the four sides of the building at a fairly brisk pace and then we were back to the queuing, this time to be sorted into elevator-taker and stair-walkers. Again we chose the stairs so we descended six flights, much more easily than we ascended, and then we queued for the lift to take us back down to the bottom and the inevitable “exit through the gift shop”. Our 6 year old had been super-excited about going up the Empire State Building because of King Kong so he was hoping to spend some of his pennies on a cuddle King Kong. There were certainly lots of cuddly Kongs available but they ranged in price from $10 to at least $22. Thankfully he was persuaded that it was not good value for money to use his savings to buy a King Kong from the gift shop and we managed to leave the Empire State Building without yet another queue to make a purchase.
From there we went to Grand Central Terminal, a building I love because of the beauty of its architecture, the wonderfully capacious concourse, the four-faced brass clock on the information booth, the tunnels to the train lines, the astronomical ceiling; the boys were excited to see it because it was where the Avengers assembled to team up and kick alien butt and where Alex the Lion got beaten around the head by a grandma’s handbag. Our 8 year old received the Lego Marvel Heroes game for Christmas and had been recognising various scenes from the game as we wandered around New York so he was busily explaining what happened at Grand Central Terminal. As the boys needed to rest their weary legs for a bit, we found them a table and seats in the market area and they ate their packed lunches and drank some hot chocolate that Mr Pict bought for them. You could practically see the steam rising off them as they warmed up.
We then went off to Times Square to mooch around the shops there. The Toys R Us on Times Square is amazing. Normally I am pragmatic about Toys R Us. It is handy to have the kids wander around a large warehouse and suggest thing they might like for birthdays or Christmas but it is such a soulless place. The strip lighting is harsh and cold, it always feels a bit disorganised and there is no warmth, charm, enthusiasm or character to the place which is very odd for somewhere trying to appeal to kids. I much preferred the experience of shopping in Hamley’s toy store in Glasgow to wandering around Toys R Us. This Toys R Us could not have been more different.
For a start it has a ferris wheel in the middle of store. A ferris wheel. That instantly adds character. But they had also given some thought as to how to display things attractively and make each product area appealing. Gone were the tall warehouse shelves and instead there were nice low level shelves where, you know, kids could actually see things and you don’t feel like boxes are looming over you. The kids were immediately drawn to the lego area because lego has them in its thrall. Not only did they have a wide variety of lego sets available but they also had massive Lego sculptures decorating the area, including a human sized Hulk that the boys posed with and an Empire State Building. In the adjacent area was an animatronic T Rex. There were people dressed up as superheroes posing for photographs – for a fee, of course, so my superhero mad kids did not get to do that. We wandered around the store marvelling at the displays and our youngest son was overcome with excitement seeing a massive minion.
From there it was on to the Lego Store at the Rockerfeller Plaza. This meant we also got to see the legendary skating rink and the gilded statue of Prometheus. It immediately made me think of the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ section of ‘Fantasia 2000’. The Lego Store itself was actually a bit disappointing. We have been to several lego stores now, mostly in Britain but also the one at the King of Prussia mall in Pennsylvania, and this flagship store in New York city was definitely not as good as any of those other stores. I think largely it was down to the store design as there was a large staircase in the middle of the building leading up to a mezzanine level that contained nothing but checkouts which meant that display and shopping space was narrow and cramped and having windows on so many sides also limited the opportunity for shelf space. There was also the massive wall for pick ‘n’ mix bricks which also bit a chunk out of the floor and display space. There was, however, a great window display of the Rockerfeller Center and lego reproductions of some of the nearby statues but otherwise it was a bit deflating. The middle boys wanted to buy Lego Movie minifigures so I got to experience another queue. One of the checkout people was making each kid sing the “Everything is Awesome’ brainworm song from the movie when they reached the till. I was very glad when we were called forward by a different staff member.
Then we went to the M&M Store. Yes, a store just for M&Ms. Actually three storeys of a building selling nothing but M&Ms and merchandise. Everything was set out according to the colours of each M&M, a method of organising displays I approve of because I hang all of my clothes in colour spectrum order. There were walls of M&Ms, peanut and chocolate ones, in a much wider array of colours than you would ever get in a normal everyday packet, colours such as violet and teal and cream. The wall M&Ms cost $12.99 per pound though so our boys (who had already spent some of their money on toys in the previous two stores) were warned to back away from the candy wall.
I had wanted to stroll around FAO Schwarz, New York’s famous independent and iconic toy store. However, all of the kids were starting to flag at that juncture so we decided to call it quits . Ambling around FAO Schwarz can be for another trip. So we walked back to our hotel for a brief break before heading out to Times Square in the dark to see that all the lights and electronic billboards looked like at night.
We ate dinner in Virgil’s Barbecue just off Times Square. We had smelled barbecue food earlier in the day so I think that put my husband in the mood for that type of food plus they were one of very few places that would take reservations – and reservations are pretty important when you have a family of six and hungry kids don’t like queuing. The place had a nice relaxed atmosphere – the napkins were flannel cloths – and we experienced very efficient and enthusiastic service. They had found a way to keep the tables turning over and maximising profit but without making us, as diners, feel rushed or harassed in any way. The food, it must be said, was not cheap but it was comparable to other prices in the vicinity and the portions were massive and the quality was good. I normally cannot stand hush puppies because they just taste like greasy lumps to me but their hush puppies were tasty and were served with maple syrup butter which was even tastier. I had a plate of barbecue pulled chicken with fries that still had their skins on and coleslaw. And a jalapeno cornbread muffin in case that wasn’t already enough. It was all really delicious, especially when dipped in some of their hot barbecue sauce, but it was a colossal portion. I am usually a great eater and I hate wasting food but even I had to admit defeat in the battle of woman versus food. So it was a great meal and a good dining experience only marred by our 8 year old deciding to build up to a tantrum because apparently he had some pain in his calf muscle. There were men at the battle of Gettysburg who had their legs shredded by canon and, while having the ragged pulp of their limbs amputated, were more stoic and made less noise than he was making over what was at most a bit of an ache. We suspected and it was later confirmed, however, that there was nothing wrong with his legs at all. He just wanted to whip up a melodramatic frenzy because he apparently cannot go on any trip without having some sort of meltdown. In Phildalephia at Christmas time it was a 40 minute screaming fit on a snowy street because a snowflake had apparently strayed into his eye. Yes. A snowflake. Sigh.
We were back out to Times Square to see what it looked like in the dark. The answer was mostly the same as it does in daylight since there are so many electronic billboards blazing light on the place. I guess the electrical signage pops a bit more in the dark. There were people in costumes working for tips by having their photos taken with tourists. The littlest Pict had already had his photo taken with Elmo and a Minion partly because he trapped us and partly because he was so delighted it was worth the couple of bucks each time. He got totally excited at night time, however, seeing the superheroes. He was screeching at his brothers about how he had just spotted the real Batman. The. Real. Batman. They were good sports and played along, stifling their chuckles. But then a giant Hello Kitty approached him and he greeted it with “What. The. Heck?” Needless to say he did not have his photo taken with it. We also got to see Puss in Boots bum a cigarette from Woody. Which was different.
All the walking, climbing and trekking certainly helped the kids fall asleep quickly. Even the one with the agonising leg difficulty.